In supporting Naomi Osaka, President Halimah highlights the importance of mental health

Naomi Osaka was fined $19,800 and threatened with disqualification after she refused to carry out a mandatory news conference. PHOTO: NYTIMES

SINGAPORE - President Halimah Yacob has said she has "great respect" for tennis player Naomi Osaka, who recently pulled out of the French Open over mental health issues.

In a Facebook post on Sunday (June 6), Madam Halimah, a long-time advocate for greater awareness of mental health issues, especially among young people, acknowledged that the decision must have been "terribly difficult for her", as Ms Osaka, 23, is at the prime of her career.

The Japanese world number two and a four-time Grand Slam champion was fined US$15,000 (S$19,800) on May 30 and threatened with disqualification after she refused to carry out a mandatory news conference following her first-round win. She later withdrew from the tournament.

On the eve of the French Open, Ms Osaka had likened post-match media inquests to "kicking people when they are down", which had a detrimental effect on her mental health".

She also came clean about suffering from bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018, admitting that she had "a really hard time coping with that".

The International Tennis Federation has promised a comprehensive review on how players and media interact during tournaments, saying it takes mental health issues extremely seriously, Reuters reported on Saturday.

Affirming that Ms Osaka had done the right thing, Madam Halimah said her move had "sent a strong signal" to millions around the world who are struggling with mental health issues, as it showed that "it's okay to walk away from a toxic and stressful environment, even if that will set you back for a while".

She added that many people wait too long to protect their mental health, much to their detriment and that of their families, and many still continue to fear the stigma of being "condemned" for losing their mental faculties.

Acknowledging that mental health has yet again become a hot topic due to social exclusion, lockdowns and safe management measures amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Madam Halimah said most people have developed "mental resilience to overcome temporary setbacks".

However, developing that resilience starts from a young age, both at home and in school, she added.

"It's sad when we read of young children killing themselves due to poor exam results because they saw their self-worth as linked to their school performance, and nothing else. We need constructive, uplifting conversations at home, school and the workplace."

Amid this difficult period, she added, women working from home often bear the brunt of mental stress, as they have to deal with caregiving responsibilities at the same time.

Regardless of the situation, Madam Halimah said that a lot more empathy, care and kindness can be shown to those in our family and others in the community.

"Always start with ourselves. Treat others like how we would like to be treated ourselves," she said.

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